Old Fezziwig, clapping his hands to stop the dance, cried
out, 'Well done!'

"Old Fezziwig, clapping his hands to stop the dance, cried out, 'Well done!'" by E. A. Abbey. American Household Edition (1876), fourth illustration for A Christmas Carol, "Stave Two: The First of the Three Spirits." in Dickens's Christmas Stories, 10 x 13.5 framed, p. 21. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

Dickens's Christmas Stories, A Christmas Carol, "Stave Two: The First of the Three Spirits" (December 1843).

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We have moved but a little in place, but some two generations back in time to Mr. Fezziwig's Christmas-eve entertainment for his extended family of apprentices, labourers, shopmen, shopwomen, and those employed in neighbouring businesses, as well as some people who evidently live in the vicinity of Fezziwig and Company. Abbey makes the illustration stand for a transitional period in fashion as in business, as trousers (on the figure in the foreground, right, who also wears dancing pumps) and breeches (seen on the figure in the centre, who wears hose and 18th c. walking shoes) suggest the coexistence of the modern and the traditional, in the period of the Regency, when Beau Brummel, arbiter of fashion at the court of King George IV, introduced the French Republican mode of dress. In Abbey's plate not merely Fezziwig's employees but men, women, and children of the urban middle class gather to dance, converse, and observe others dancing.

In accordance with Dickens's lower middle class and urban upbringing, the traditional Christmas "ball" is set not in the great hall of a country manor house or ancestral seat of some great landowner. Rather, Dickens describes a more humble community event staged in a City warehouse. However, the dance step described by Dickens and realised by Abbey is the "Sir Roger de Coverley," a dance for multiple couples first recorded in 1696. Although Dickens specifies some "three or four and twenty pair of partners" (22) later, and at least "twenty couple at once" (21) at this point in the evening, Abbey depicts only two couples in the figure, perhaps all that he felt the limited space could effectively accommodate. Nowhere do we see Ebenezer in his nightgown or his spirit guide.

The commanding figure of old Fezziwig himself, in Welsh wig and the fashions of a bygone era, claps his hands, signalling a rest for the dancers and the fiddlers. At one level, he is Scrooge's memory of a more benevolent style of management than the severe relationship he has maintained with his own employee. In the 1951 Renown Rank film, he is the previous owner of Scrooge's business. Whereas Sol Eytinge, Jr., in his 1868 illustrations had underscored the old gentleman's lively participation in the dance, as he cuts a caper and seems to levitate like some plump angel in "The Fezziwig Ball while his guests admire his youthful agility. In the American Household Edition some eight years later, E. A. Abbey focuses upon Fezziwig's managing or facilitating the company's annual Christmas party. The wig and "smalls" identify him as a holdover from the eighteenth century, a benevolent and even fatherly employer who is the head of an extended family. The passage which Abbey has chosen to illustrate is this, when the figure has reached its climax:

Away they all went, twenty couple at once; hands half round and back again the other way; down the middle and up again; round and round in various stages of affectionate grouping; old top couple always turning up in the wrong place; new top couple starting off again, as soon as they got there; all top couples at last, and not a bottom one to help them. When this result was brought about, old Fezziwig, clapping his hands to stop the dance, cried out, "Well done!" and the fiddler plunged his hot face into a pot of porter, especially provided for that purpose. [Stave Two: "The First of the Three Spirits," 21]

Abbey gives not the dancing virtuoso but the patriarch who can simultaneously mingle with and supervise the community. He thus represents an old-fashioned blurring of the distinction between commercial, capitalistic, and familial relations, for he is not merely the "owner" but the "master," wearing the breeches of that more convivial era rather than the trousers of the present-day bourgeois. In Noel Langley's 1951 screenplay he is forced into retirement by the sharp practise of the next generation of businessmen, as represented by a Mr. Jorkin and his accomplices, Ebenezer Scrooge and Jacob Marley. In assisting in the supplanting of the patriarch, Scrooge ironically cuts himself off from the only real family he has ever known. Scrooge's return to this Christmas dance of his youth is a reminiscence of an "ideal community — a moment of vision within the memory of Christmas Past — dissipates with the the dance, and urban life returns to its ordinary linear confusion" (Davis, The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge, 40), as Scrooge recalls with regret how he has mistreated his single employee in the leaner, more efficient world of the Victorian capitalist. In his warehouse on this present Christmas-eve the master hosts no jolly community gathering, and instead of clapping to manage the festivity all Scrooge can do is hold the snuffer down upon the Spirit of Christmas Past to repress poignant memories.

For alternate versions of the same nostalgic moment, see the illustration of the country dance by John Leech (Chapman and Hall, 1843) and the close up of Fezziwig in the wood-engraving by Sol Eytinge, Jr., for the 1868 Ticknor and Fields edition. There is no comparable scene by Fred Barnard for the British Household Edition, because Barnard, something of a social activist, has chosen to focus instead on the sharp contrast between the lifestyles of the bloated capitalists at the Exchange and the impoverished denizens of the slums of the metropolis in the Hungry Forties in Scrooge's terrifying vision of a future Christmas. Thus, Fred Barnard elected not to include this delightful reminiscence of a bygone era since the community brought together by the dance in the warehouse was an ideal all too rarely reified, and the scene a glorification of a past that all too rarely existed, the perfect harmony of labour and management.

Left: John Leech's "Mr. Fezziwig's Ball" (1843); right, Sol Eytinge, Jr.'s "The Fezziwig Ball" (1868).

References

Guiliano, Edward, and Philip Collins, eds. A Christmas Carol. The Annotated Dickens. Vol. 1. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1986.

Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, 1998.

---. The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge. New Haven and London: Yale U. P., 1990.

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol — A Ghost Story of Christmas. Il. Sol Eytinge, Jr. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1868.

Dickens, Charles. Christmas Books. Il. Fred Barnard. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1878.

---. Christmas Stories. Il. E. A. Abbey. The Household Edition. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1876.

Guida, Fred. "A Christmas Carol" and Its Adaptations. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2000.

Parker, David. Christmas and Charles Dickens. New York: AMS Press, 2005.


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Last modified 20 November 2012